PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- You can see the excitement on Greg Schiano's face when he talks about football.
The passion, the focus -- that has always been there. This spring, though, things are different.
"I think it's different because of the way things ended last year, I know it is for me personally," Schiano said. "I can't wait to get back and get coaching again. Last year was really a blur for me from everything that happened from Eric's injury on. I tried to do everything that I normally did as a head coach and also get to see Eric every day.
|Members of the Scarlet Knights kneel and pray while DT Eric LeGrand lay on the field injured on Oct. 16. (US Presswire)|
Schiano was talking about Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers defensive tackle who suffered a spinal cord injury while making a tackle on a kickoff against Army last year. Paralyzed from the shoulders down, LeGrand has gone through the arduous process of physical therapy since the accident and has regained full sensation throughout his body.
After beating Army in overtime following the injury, however, the wheels started to come off for the Scarlet Knights. They dropped their final six games of the season after starting 4-2, losing four games by more than 20 points. When looking back at the season and trying to figure out what went wrong, Schiano simply has to throw his hands up.
"It's hard to do it this year because I don't know what to attribute to schematic issues as compared to when Eric got hurt. Our defensive football team battled for awhile and they kind of went [splat]," he said. "I don't know the answer. I know there was definitely a mental issue that we had. You watch the tape and we're not playing as physical and those kind of things. But I think we'll be OK -- sometimes you get a little out of whack sometimes."
For months following LeGrand's injury, Schiano drove to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation every day to see him and check on his progress. The hour drive to and from the rehab center took its toll on the 10th-year head coach, but the experience leading the program through a difficult ordeal is something Schiano thinks has made him a better coach in the long run.
"I hope so. I guess that remains to be seen, but I feel like it puts things in perspective sometimes," Schiano said. "Every day I'd walk into my office and there would be another box there from another school with a helmet or storyboard where everybody signed it. Just an incredible outpouring of support. It really gave me even more belief in this game. I think it's one of those things that everybody realizes how vulnerable you are. When it does happen, their hearts go out to you.
"I think of all the issues we have, and then my last thought is it isn't even close to the issue that Eric has, so suck it up and get going. That's what I've tried to do."
LeGrand has returned to Rutgers twice in the past several months, once for a comedy show benefit and another to surprise his teammates at their first team meeting of the year. While he occasionally makes it out of rehab, LeGrand will be at the facility going through his normal routine for the foreseeable future.
For the Rutgers staff, and Schiano in particular, knowing that LeGrand is receiving the best care possible has allowed them to turn their attention to spring football, which starts March 29. In order to help turn things around after last year's disastrous 4-8 campaign, three new staff members were brought on board to infuse new ideas and provide a bit of an outside perspective.
"Frank [Cignetti] is leading the offense and I think with him and Brian Angelico, it's great to have two guys who ran this offense together for two years," Schiano said. "We're doing what we do and tweaking things but it's great to get another voice in there. Just another opinion, 'Hey this is how we did it.' I think it's working out well. The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but I'm excited anytime you have some change or new ideas."
Rutgers finished 114th in total offense last season but showed some signs of life under true freshman quarterback Chas Dodd. Lackluster numbers in the middle of Big East play are something Schiano hopes to rectify before his team takes the field in the fall.
"Certainly the offensive line is always a big issue," he said. "I think when you're installing a new offense and a whole new terminology, just getting comfortable with it and being able to play hard as we learn the system, play with discipline."
There are several reinforcements arriving in the fall that should be able to help out. Running back Savon Huggins headlines a trio of New Jersey products who could see early playing time, having already arrived on campus. Defensive tackle Marquise Wright is a big body in the middle and wide receiver Miles Shuler is one of the fastest players in the country. The 6-foot, 190 pound Huggins, though, is labeled as one of Rutgers' most important recruits in several years.
"We were certainly excited about him. I recruited him for a long time," Schiano said. "I've watched Savon grow up. I've watched his best performances throughout his high school career. I don't think there's any mystery as to what kind of talent he is. A guy like Miles Schuler, you don't have to be a genius, he's the third-fastest kid in the nation. Hopefully we can find a place for him to play. We have a lot of really talented kids but you never know how they're going to adjust going to school.
"Every year we have some freshmen that help and it's been different each year. I'm sure there will be some in this crop that end up playing very early."
While the Rutgers fan base might be excited after months of looking for something, anything to get excited about, the prospect of some of the talented incoming freshmen making an impact is something Schiano is a little bit hesitant about.
"Our deal around here is competition," he said. "I don't care if you're a senior or a freshman. Heck, this last year at quarterback is evidence of it -- Chas comes in and replaces Tom [Savage], who is injured, and plays better than Tom was playing and he never lost the job. We're all about competition every day -- you've got to earn your job each and every day.
"Sometimes, as a young kid, it has to be clear because I do believe guys build equity in your program. If a guy's performed at a high level, you know he's going to do it. Just because a kid can do it in practice doesn't mean he can do it in a game. But if a guy is clearly outperforming an established guy, it doesn't matter to me. We're going to play the guys that give us the best chance to win, period."
The workman-like attitude the Scarlet Knights hope to return to is due in part to what they went through last season. While LeGrand remains in everybody's hearts, their thoughts are starting to turn to X's and O's as springtime arrives in Piscataway.
"The second half of last season, I've kind of, in my mind, said I'm not going to go crazy trying to find the holy grail there because I'm not sure I'm going to find it," Schiano said. "There's some things where, as the saying goes, it is what it is. Sometimes that's where you are. I'm not downplaying it, but I'm excited to get going again."
With less than a month to go until spring practices begin, football is finally looking ahead again at Rutgers.